Sri Lankan court case against gifting elephant to New Zealand shifts focus to conservation

The on-going court case in Sri Lanka challenging President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to gift a baby elephant to New Zealand has brought back focus on the protection of the Sri Lankan elephant - Elephas maximus maximus – an endangered species as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

PK Balachandran, Sri Lanka
Published : 5 April 2017, 05:04 PM
Updated : 5 April 2017, 05:04 PM

On a writ petition filed by animal rights activists and Buddhist and Christian organisations, the Court of Appeal has stayed the export of the baby elephant “Nandi” and fixed May 26 as the next date for hearing the case.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General had appointed two committees to revise the regulations relating to the export of baby elephants to other countries. The committees are expected to give their reports before May 26.

It was in 2016, when the then New Zealand Prime Minister John Key visited Sri Lanka, that President Sirisena had announced that he would gift to New Zealand the baby elephant Nandi kept in the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. But opposition to this rose both in Sri Lanka and in New Zealand. The grounds were similar.

The New Zealand animal rights organisation SAFE said in a statement that it was “deadly opposed” to bringing another elephant into the country.

The first of many reasons for this being that transporting and caring for an elephant in captivity is extravagantly more expensive than maintaining them in the wild.

However, the most important reason is that female elephant often never leave their mothers or mother figures. Even though Nandi was orphaned, she will be brutally ripped away from her family and sold to solidify foreign relations.

'Nandi' is not the first elephant to be sent to New Zealand from Sri Lanka, as another was sold to them last year,” SAFE said.

Since the Sri Lankan elephant is special species known as Elephas maximus maximus and is part of the culture and religion of both the Buddhists and Hindus in the island, it is much sought after in zoos across the world.

While in ancient times, Sri Lanka exported elephants to other countries to be part of their armies and pageantry, they are still used in Buddhist and Hindu temples across the Indian sub-continent to lend colour to religious processions.

Since the elephant is very closely with Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan leaders have often gifted them to visiting foreign dignitaries to make a lasting impression. Zoos across the world have also taken Sri Lankan elephants as breeding them in captivity is a challenging task.

The 30-year war between the government forces and Tamil militants in the North and East had led to the death of hundreds of elephants due to the landmines that were planted by both the sides.

Given all these factors, there has been a marked dwindling in the number of elephants since early 19th century.

In the early 1880s, there were about 14,000 elephants in Sri Lanka both in the wild and in captivity. This came down to 10,000 in the early 1900s. By 1920 'shikaris' or hunters, had claimed hundreds, bringing the number of animals to 8,000.

The development of agriculture in forest areas after independence in 1948, resulted in the killing of hundreds of elephants which brought their population further down to 2455 by 1969.

Steps were taken to minimise the man-elephant conflict resulted in the population going up to 3435 in 1987.

However, the brutal war in the North and East which escalated in the late 1980s, claimed the lives of many elephants, mainly due to landmines. Between 1990 and 1994, 261 elephants had fallen victim to landmines.

The country had lost two-thirds of its elephant population by 1993 when the number came down to 1967.

The 2000-2004 peace process brought some respite. The population rose to 4400. However, the resumption of war in 2005 brought the population down to 3156 in 2006. It came further down to 3000 in 2007. The end of the war in May 2009 again brought relief, and the population grew to 5879 in 2011.

In the meanwhile, steps are being to conserve the vanishing Elephas maximus maximus. The government has created Elephant Corridors in areas in which there has been the man-elephant conflict so that elephants can cross without being confronted by human beings. There is an elephant orphanage at Pinnawala and also the National Park at Uduwalawe which enable the elephant to live in its natural habitat without being disturbed by developmental activities.